I find that the act of making a Top Ten list each year probably takes up way more headspace than it should for me. I sweat over it. I wrestle with each spot on that list. I spend days moving things up and down the list until I feel like there’s nothing that I can movie anywhere else.
And the films that just narrowly miss that Top Ten are almost always films I love just as much as the films that made the Top Ten. It’s just that the order shook out in a way that often leaves me tied in knots. How can I love a film this much and not find a spot for it in that top ten? It’s a good problem to have, and 2011 was a year where I could easily have made three totally different Top Ten lists and each one would have been equally valid and filled with things I adore. I’ll leave it at 20, though. There’s the main Top Ten that we ran the other day, and now this, my list of the runners-up. And what a strange and diverse group of titles it is.
As with the Top Ten list, if it showed at a public screening this year, it qualifies for my list, and I think this represents a pretty strange and wonderful range of experiences that were possible to have for ticket-buyers this year.
10 / BULLHEAD
If you had told me before I saw it that a movie about the Belgian underground world of cattle steroid abuse would be one of the most brutal and impressive family dramas I’d see all year, I would not have believed it. In a year where I liked a number of first films, Michael Roskam made a major announcement for himself with this disturbing and deeply felt look at a young cattle farmer (Matthias Schoenaerts) who is finds himself at a moral flashpoint when he realizes that he’s being set up by an undercover cop who happens to be the one person who knows a damning secret about him. It is a beautifully crafted film, and the performance by Scoenaerts is one of the greatest of the year. The best testimonial for this film is that Belgium picked this as their entry for the Best Foreign Language Film category at the Oscars in the same year that there is a new film from the Dardennes, which would be like Disney submitting “Gnomeo & Juliet” instead of a new Pixar film. If “Gnomeo & Juliet” were awesome and about steroid abuse.
9 / WE BOUGHT A ZOO
I don’t care how many people pile on to bash Cameron Crowe for his sentimental streak. “We Bought A Zoo” is an absurd premise, a soft-pedaled version of the true story, and filled with odd choices and characters that barely register, and yet it just kept knocking me flat, over and over. Part of it is seeing Matt Damon and Scarlett Johansson playing normal people for once, without any sort of high-concept to hide behind, and part of it is that Crowe has a great knack for staging emotional material. By the time the film concludes with an extra ending or two, I found myself both emotionally exhausted and completely satisfied. Call it corny if you must, but Crowe has a direct button to the way I feel, and I don’t begrudge him a bit.
8 / TYRANNOSAUR
In a year where we saw the rise of the Autistic Archetype, people barely noticed that the brilliant actor Paddy Considine revealed the information that he was diagnosed with Asperger’s, making the emotional landscape of “Tyrannosaur” even more terrifying. Peter Mullan stars as a man who is practically crippled by anger, and the film is bookended by two shocking bits of violence involving dogs. The irony is how much more upset most viewers will be about those actions than anything that comes between them, when it is the emotional horror that radiates out from Mullan that should leave you immobilized. Olivia Colman gives one of the finest performances of the year as a woman dealing with her own anger and violence issues, and it’s a shame this wasn’t seen by more people, because it’s a film that deserves real awards season play on every front.
7 / THE MUPPETS
“Everything is great, everything is grand, I’ve got the whole wide world in the palm of my hand. Everything is perfect, it’s falling into place, I can’t seem to wipe this smile off my face.” Those opening lines to one of the perfect songs written by Bret McKenzie sum up exactly why I love this movie. It is without pretense and filled with boundless joy and love. Jason Segel and Amy Adams really are the perfect human leads for a film like this, since they are both such over-the-top reservoirs of sincerity and cheer in the first place, and for the first time in years, the Muppets in this film are the Muppets I first fell in love with as a kid. Yes, I am confessing a case of nostalgia, but the film works beyond that, as a question posed about whether or not there is still a space in our culture for something so genuine. I hope the long-run answer is yes, but for now, James Bobin and Nicholas Stoller and Segel have answered it with the most beautiful affirmation I can imagine.
6 / THE DESCENDANTS
Alexander Payne’s film version of the novel by Kaui Hart Hemmings is a lovely, heartfelt look at the surprising ways family defines us and the difference between what we want and what is right for us. George Clooney just keeps getting better as he gets older, and he nails it as a father looking for a way to deal with all the major choices that are dumped on us by life, unsure of the basic job description but determined to figure it out on the fly. As good as he is, Shailene Woodley and Amara Miller as his daughters are equally great, and the bond that we see develop between them over the course of the film, culminating in one of the most understated but effective final shots of the year, is tremendous and authentic. It’s a wonderfully script by Payne, Nat Faxon and Jim Rash, and bonus points for Beau Bridges as Jeff Bridges, Hawaii as itself, and a great supporting turn by Judy Greer.
5 / A BETTER LIFE
You know why I can’t take awards seriously? Because none of the conversation this year revolves around nominating Demian Bichir for Best Actor, and that’s just ridiculous. Chris Weitz, working from the script by Eric Eason and Roger L. Simon, has crafted a nod to “Bicycle Thieves” by way of the present-day discussion about illegal immigration in Los Angeles, and if it were an issue-based film, it wouldn’t work. Instead, Weitz focuses on the relationship between Carlos Galindo (Bichir) and his son Luis (Jose Julian), and it’s rendered with a beautiful eye for detail and observation. This is the Chris Weitz who made “About A Boy,” and I hope we see a lot more from Weitz in this mode. No matter what, this one is a film that deserves more attention and respect, and I urge you give it a chance.
4 / JEFF WHO LIVES AT HOME
I just asked Twitter to guess which actor starred in two films on my Runners-Up list, and out of about 50 guesses, only one of them named Jason Segel. While “The Muppets” was a personal passion project for him, this one was written and directed by Mark and Jay Duplass, the brothers behind “Cyrus” and “Puffy Chair,” and they seem to be getting better at what they do. This is one of the strangest films on this list if I try to describe it in synopsis form — “A guy in his 30s who still lives in his mother’s basement and who lives his life according to M. Night Shyamalan’s ‘Signs’ has a day-long adventure that brings him, his brother, and the women in their lives to a better understanding of themselves and their relationships” — but in motion, it is a thing of daffy beauty. I love the open heart of this movie, I love Ed Helms and Jason Segel as brothers, I love Judy Greer as a woman fighting for her marriage, and I love the odd and unexpected story between Susan Sarandon and Rae Dawn Chong. Disarming and delightful, modest and utterly original, “Jeff Who Lives At Home” is a gem.
3 / SUBMARINE
I’m amazed that Richard Ayoade adapted this film from a novel by Joe Dunthorne, because it feels like something personal, something remembered. It feels like Ayoade is speaking from experience here, and in a way, that’s why “Submarine” works so well. In painting such a particular portrait of a young man struggling with both his own nascent love life and the slow-death of the marriage of his parents, Ayoade has made something that taps big universal emotions with grace and wit and warmth. If this movie was a person, I would hug it and tell it that everything’s going to be just fine. I love the performances in the film. Noah Taylor and Sally Hawkins are amazing as the parents of young Craig Roberts, and there’s a deliciously weird performance from Paddy Considine as the man who comes between them. Yasmin Paige is a perfect focus for the romantic obsessions of young Oliver Tate (Roberts), and by the time this one wrapped up, I felt truly invested in the happiness of all of these characters. A wonderful film.
2 / MARGARET
If “Submarine” is a warm bath, then “Margaret” is a cold shower, bracing and harsh and unpleasant at times. It’s strange that this film has been on a shelf for five years, because it feels like it is something necessary for right now, this moment. Kenneth Lonergan’s film, famously troubled during post-production, may be the shaggiest film on this entire list, rough around the edges and compromised because of editing issues, but it is also one of the nerviest, most unflinching things I saw all year. Anna Paquin stars as Lisa, a girl from upper class Manhattan, whose life is in a typical teenage tailspin already before she witnesses a horrifying bus accident that she may have had some hand in causing. Lonergan’s movie offers up a huge tapestry of lives all affected by Lisa’s reckless choices, and Jeannie Berlin is a standout even in a year full of great performances. She plays a close friend of the woman who was killed, and it’s great watching her watch this girl as she pinballs through life, leaving damage in her wake. Paquin plays Lisa like someone who just got a sports car that they don’t know how to drive, her sexuality still new and dangerous, and J. Smith-Cameron as her mother offers up an explanation for how Lisa got this way in the first place. “Margaret” is the real feel-bad movie event of the year, and it’s nice to see Fox Searchlight starting to wake up to the idea that this is something they should be proud to have released.
1 / HUGO
Martin Scorsese’s film version of the Brian Selznick book is another one of those films that shouldn’t work when you see the description of it on paper, which makes it even more appealing in a way. How do you make a story about the importance of film preservation into something filled with wonder and mystery and beauty and heart? John Logan’s script is a big part of that, and Selznick’s book is a great piece of source material, but it really comes down to personal passion. In making a movie about the deep love that Georges Melies had for filmmaking, Scorsese offers up a very pure expression of his own love of filmmaking, and he also tries to explain what it is about that passion that unites people, that makes film such an enduring part of our culture and our dreams and our lives. Films are not just disposable background noise to me or to many people. They are important, vital, and alive, and “Hugo” stands as a testament to that. No other movie is more drunk on the movies themselves this year.
I’ll have one more article to wrap up 2011 that will arrive tomorrow, a look at everything else that mattered to me this year, and then it’s on to 2012. Thanks for sharing the last three years with me here at HitFix, and here’s to many more.